The Devil's Stepchild
Graciela went ashore , leaving Miguel and the second mate in charge. None of the crew were to be allowed on the island until certain arrangements had been made with the governor of Jamaica, Lord Jeffrey Albermarle-Finch.
Lord Jeffrey was a thin, languid fop who, despite the often fearsome tropical heat, continued to disguise his thinning hair by wearing elaborate wigs; he covered his face with a thick layer of white lead and powder to hide the deep pockmarks that dotted his skin. He affected the latest Paris fashions and was probably best known for his extensive collection of jeweled shoe buckles. The inhabitants of the island referred to him as "The Devil's Stepchild."
He was a man who could be bought but rarely trusted. The only word that he had not broken was his lucrative agreement to issue specific temporary pardons to pirates who came to Jamaica to sell their booty; the profits from the pirate's generous bribes lined his pockets and maintained his precious shoe buckle collection, a wife, several mistresses, his estates in England and France, and kept his lifestyle at the luxurious and pampered level to which he had become accustomed.
The pardons he issued in the name of the Crown were only made out for specific crimes, such as murder, piracy, destruction of His Majesty's property and so on; thus, any pirate on Jamaican soil who had committed a crime NOT listed on the governor's pardon could possibly face imprisonment and hanging. Possibly. A large enough bribe usually ensured a speedy escape from gaol. The governor was careful not to allow word of his practice to reach the ears of the Court; that would have ended his career and perhaps brought him up on charges of treason. Every now and then he would rouse himself and capture a few cutthroats, but only the unimportant ones or those whose bribes hadn't been very generous of late. Lord Jeffrey certainly didn't want to destroy his most important source of income by being too conscientious in his duties.
When Graciela was admitted to his whitewashed mansion, Lord Jeffrey was reclining at his ease on the back verandah, dictating a letter to wife. His secretary, whose ill-fitting wig was perched on the back of his round, bald head, scribbled madly.
"Rumor has reached me, madame, that you are with child. Indeed, my good friend Lady Lumley has informed me that despite your dressmakers' ingenuity, your belly bulges further every day." Lord Jeffrey paused and snapped his fingers.
Instantly, a pretty mulatto slave girl offered him a platter of fruit; he took his time choosing and eventually popped a grape into his mouth.
Waving the slave away, Lord Jeffrey chewed and continued speaking: "I shall not inquire as to the identity of the child's natural father, as it has come to my attention that the candidates may well run into the dozens. Therefore, you are informed that I shall deny the bastard's paternity and instruct my solicitors to reduce your allowance by half. Should that prove insufficient to keep your skirts below your knees and your conduct circumspect, you have my leave to return to your family; no doubt they will be happy to support you in your declining years since I have been so generous as to support them throughout our married life."
The lord yawned, concealing his gaping mouth behind a lacy handkerchief, and said, "Sign it with the usual felicitations and such then put it on the first fast ship to England. I want my dear wife to receive my missive before she's delivered of the bastard. Oh, and send a letter to my mistress in France; tell her I'm reducing her allowance, too. Damned women! They think the world's made of money!"
Graciela stood there, waiting, tapping a toe impatiently on the wooden floor. The secretary leaned down and whispered something in Lord Jeffrey's ear. He yawned again and asked, "Have the diamond buckles I commissioned from Italy arrived yet?"
The secretary whispered some more. Lord Jeffrey nodded in satisfaction. "Very well. Bring in the new business."
Graciela approached without hesitation. Over the years, she and Lord Jeffrey - as had so many other pirates with the venial governor - reached a mutually beneficial accommodation. Without waiting for permission, she seated herself across the table from the lord.
He raised an eyebrow but didn't comment on Graciela's boldness. Instead, he smiled slightly, showing blackened teeth, and said lazily, "Ah, the She-Wolf of the Caribbean! How goes the trade, my good captain?"
"See for yourself." Graciela removed a knotted kerchief from the waistband of her trousers. Untying the knot, she opened the package and spilled a handful of gems out onto the table. The rubies, emeralds and sapphires caught the sun and glowed like embers.
Lord Jeffrey stirred the jewels with a forefinger. "A pretty haul," he said. Leaning back in his chair, he waved his lace-trimmed handkerchief; another slave, this one a frightened teenager with skin so dark it gleamed blue-black, approached and carefully dabbed at his powdered forehead with a clean cloth.
"Pretty but insufficient, good captain." the lord continued. "I trust there is more where this came from?"
Graciela nodded. "Aye, of course. Has the price gone up, then?"
"I received word from England two weeks ago. The price on your head has been increased to two thousand pounds. To grant you and your crew sanctuary, I shall require no less than two thousand five hundred. Doubloons, francs, jewels, spices... if you have goods other than hard cash or gems, I shall arrange for you to meet with my factor."
"That won't be necessary," Graciela answered. "How much do you think this is worth?" She held up a thick gold chain; suspended from the chain was a pendant at least a handbreadth wide, set with a magnificent, flawless sapphire that was surrounded by rose cut diamonds in a baroque gold frame. The pendent glittered spectacularly, almost blindingly, in the sun.
"Got it off a fellow who was in on the Spanish galleon looting. The Mariposa, remember?," the pirate continued. "I reckon its worth a penny or two."
Lord Jeffrey's watery eyes, of a peculiar reddish-brown that reminded Graciela of inferior garnets, glistened in appreciative greed. "Ah," he sighed. "I believe that will do nicely."
Graciela handed the governor his prize and grinned. "Good," she said. "It's always a pleasure doing business with you, sir. Your secretary will have the sanctuary grant delivered to my ship by the usual time?"
"Of course, of course," Lord Jeffrey drawled. His eyes were locked on the dangling pendent; the sapphire was bigger than a baby's fist and would fetch a king's ransom when he sold it privately. "With the usual provisions."
"I'll expect your courier at noon," Graciela said. She had to exert a fierce amount of control not to burst out laughing at the expression on the governor's face; he looked like a baby fascinated by a favorite toy.
As she left, the pirate stopped and asked over her shoulder, "You will include permission for me to bring some merchandise to the slave market?"
Lord Jeffrey waved his handkerchief absently. "Whatever you wish, my good captain."
Graciela shot the secretary a hard glance from her ice blue eyes; the little man cringed and nodded, almost whimpering, "I'll see to it, miss. Er... captain."
The pirate captain stomped away, the fringed ends of her sash fluttering in the salt sea breeze. A slight smile curved her lips and she trust her hands into her pockets, whistling a tune between her teeth.
That little bauble she'd given the governor was nothing compared to the valuable goods the Sans Quartier held in her hold... not to mention the price she'd get from the Sultan of Bey's factors for the exotic blonde Countess!
Well satisfied and feeling good, Graciela made her way back down to the wharf to meet with the Sultan's men and arrange for the Countess' sale.
While the captain was gone, Miguel made good his promise to himself to see what could be done about Elizabeth.
The girl was standing uneasily in the middle of the room, a sheet wrapped around her nude body. When Miguel entered, she gasped and turned around so swiftly she almost fell. "I belong to the Captain!," she cried shrilly, clutching the sheet and twisting about, obviously looking for a hiding place. "Go away!"
The Spaniard chuckled. "I don't intend to rape you, little girl," he said in his deep voice. "I just wanted to see the material I have to work with."
Elizabeth looked at the swarthy man in horror; he was as tall as she but bulkier, and every ounce of that flesh was pure, hard muscle. His ruby eye flashed in a shaft of sunlight; despite the friendly smile, he was as terrifying a sight as the maid had ever seen.
Miguel approached the quivering girl slowly and carefully, hoping to calm her down. He knew that if the chit injured herself, there'd be hell to pay with the Captain. "Listen to me, Lizzybetta," he said soothingly. "I'm your friend, truly. I only want to help you."
Elizabeth eyed him warily. "How?," she asked after a moment.
Miguel's smile grew broader. This might not be as hard as he'd thought! "Do you want to live?," he asked. "Do you want to be free?"
"Y-y-yes," the maid stammered. Her heart pounded; she wondered if this man would take her away from this ship, back to civilization and away from the pirates... especially from their beautiful and seductive captain. She still shuddered when she remembered her conduct with that woman; she'd been so close to surrendering to Graciela's wooing... and it frightened her that her own body could prove so treacherous and ripe for damnation.
The Spaniard gestured. "Turn around," he said. "I want to get a look at you, girl."
Elizabeth did as he bid, turning around once in place but keeping her eyes on him as long as she was able. Noticing her caution, Miguel chuckled again. "That's good, Lizzybetta. You've already learned one thing - never turn your back on an armed man."
Suddenly, he came closer and grabbed her arm, squeezing the bicep hard. Elizabeth squawked and tried to pull away. After letting her struggle for a moment, Miguel let go. "Not as bad as I thought," he remarked thoughtfully. "You've some muscle beneath; when I'm through with you, girl, you'll have more."
"I don't know what you mean," Elizabeth replied shakily. "What do you want, sir? What are your intentions?"
"If you want to live, Lizzybetta, you'll do as I tell you. I'm going to teach you things and it will be hard work, but when we're finished, by Jesu, you'll be able to hold your own against any man on board - except, perhaps, myself," Miguel said, giving the girl a mocking little bow. "You'll do the exercises I show you; you'll practice what I teach until you drop. You'll dress as I say, speak as I say and learn as I say. Maybe, in a year or two..."
"A year? Two?," Elizabeth spluttered. "I still don't understand! What are you doing to me?"
Miguel rested one buttock on the side of the captain's desk. "Lizzybetta, you think you're weak but I know - I know! - somewhere you've got steel in you. Today you're just a pretty girl; do as I tell you and you'll become a beautiful woman. A woman worthy of the She-Wolf."
Elizabeth was frankly astonished. So astonished, in fact, that for a moment she could not speak or even breath. Then something finally happened that had been developing for a long, long time.
She became angry.
Very, very angry.
Everything she had been forced to endure since the kidnapping - and before! - added fuel to the flames that reached out and threatened to consume her. A sense of enormous indignation and pure rage seized her, raising up from some unknown depths. She'd been taught to control her temper from the time she was a child; now, however, she cast off restraint and transformed from a timid mouse to a raging lioness.
All the injustices she had suffered in her young life - being raised by a grasping and greedy family, who saw her only as a commodity they could sell to the corrupt Court in the hopes of raising their own fortunes; the cruel mistress she had served faithfully, and for that faithful service had been cast out, exiled from her homeland and thrust into the midst of pirates; the bland assumption of this one-eyed savage that she would gratefully submit to the pawings and lewd suggestions of the so-called She-Wolf - it was all suddenly too much to be borne!
Breathing heavily through her flared nostrils, Elizabeth forgot she was frightened. In her veins ran the blood of Anthony Everheart - a hot-tempered highwayman who'd been legendary for his fits of outrageous temper. Until this moment she'd never shown that she was descended from that volcanic gentleman. Now, however, submitting to the raging forces she could barely contain, Elizabeth at last revealed that her spirit had been bent - but not broken.
She drew herself up to her full height; her green eyes flashed, her cheeks flushed and that glorious mane of red-gold hair seemed to snap with sparks of electricity, almost lifting from her shoulders of its own accord. Shaking with the force of her rage, she spat, "Worthy? Of a pirate? I'd sooner cut my own throat than allow that piece of filth to touch me again! How dare you, sir?!! How dare you make such a suggestion?!! If I were a man, I would cut you to pieces and feed your carcass to the dogs!"
Miguel's one eye opened wide; he was surprised by this burst of temper from a girl that everyone thought was a milk-faced, placid cow. Madre de Dios, she's beautiful!, he thought, astonished. Her color heightened by temper, Elizabeth was no more a pale and trembling child; instead, she glowed with a fiery beauty that only served to emphasize her womanhood.
Elizabeth continued loudly, "Do you think I'd willingly submit to that black dog's caress?" She shook her fist directly beneath the red-faced Spaniard's nose. "Go to hell, sir! And take your motley crew and that foul-minded captain of yours with you!"
Miguel couldn't help it; her ludicrous threats and curses, that waving fist, even the fierce expression on her face, all seemed slightly ridiculous and very funny. He began to chuckle then guffawed out loud; the braying sound startled Elizabeth, who backed away in sudden confusion, her tantrum deflating rapidly.
When he finally had control of himself and the noisy barks of laughter had died down into occasional throat clearings, the Spaniard said, "Ah, girl! I've rarely been so... nay, nay, don't run away! Come here." He grabbed the retreating Elizabeth's wrist and pulled her around in front of him.
"So, from kitten to hellcat in one blow, eh?" He surveyed the maid, who was so surprised at her own conduct that she couldn't think of a thing to say and blushed, profoundly embarrassed.
"Nay, Lizzybetta," Miguel continued, "No shame in losing your temper, girl. I warrant if you'd lost it a few more times when you were young, you wouldn't be standing here this day a pirate's prisoner."
Elizabeth felt drained, as if an abscess within her soul had been lanced open by the strength of her anger, allowing years of bitterness, self-hatred and martyred pride to spill forth, cleansing her mind and body of a slow poison that had been gradually leeching away her spirit, drop by drop.
She took a deep breath and suddenly, the entire impossible situation struck her as unbearably funny. She began to laugh and Miguel joined in as well; they giggled hysterically until they were both light-headed and gasping.
Elizabeth panted for breath and wheezed, "I still don't understand what you want me to do, sir. I gather it involves turning myself into a more mannish mode, like your captain?"
Miguel almost choked. "Graciela? Mannish? Blessed Jesu, woman! Use the eyes that God Almighty gave you!" He dissolved into laughter again and Elizabeth helpfully pounded him on the back until this new attack was over.
"Nay, girl, there will never be another She-Wolf. But, Lizzybetta, I do not wish you to be a poor twin of the captain. I only wish you to become something more than you are now. Yourself. Your true self, bonita." He reached out and drew a callused finger down her soft cheek. "I saw a beautiful, spirited woman hiding inside there, girl. I want to bring that woman out so everyone can see her."
He didn't know why, but the Spaniard already felt a closeness to this girl, even though she was a virtual stranger. Not a feeling as strong as the unspoken and unacknowledged father-daughter relationship he had with Graciela, but enough that he had already begun to think of Lizzybetta as a kinswoman.
She nodded. "If you think I can win my freedom by learning to... well, to do what? You haven't said what you want me to learn."
Miguel stepped away from her. "You will learn many things, but first, you will learn to fight," he announced confidently. "You have the height and reach for a cutlass, aye, but I think first the knife."
"Knife? You want me to..." She swallowed. "Kill people?"
"That is possible. Lizzybetta, if you learn the things I wish to teach you... well, you will become a woman to be reckoned with. No man - no one," he emphasized, "will be able to touch you if you do not permit it. Otherwise, you'll give them a scar they'll boast about to their grand-children."
At first, Elizabeth felt slightly sickened by the thought. Then, she considered her clumsiness; that bumbling, self-conscious stumbling that had earned her the hated nickname of the "Great Gawk." She'd seen gentlemen practicing their swordwork at Court; those elaborately graceful movements and maneuvers had seemed like poetry transformed into action. If she could move like that...
"All right," Elizabeth said. Inwardly, she quavered but she ruthlessly forced that uneasiness down with a strength of will that she hadn't known she possessed. To never be mocked at the "Great Gawk" anymore... that would be worth any price. "The knife. Then the cutlass; I want to learn to use a sword, too. What else?"
If Miguel was surprised at the maid's sudden acquiescence to his plans, he didn't show it. "Well...," he replied, "there's the matter of your dress..."
Throughout the afternoon the Spaniard and the English maid remained closeted together...
And when Miguel emerged, he knew he had the makings
of a formidable woman on his hands.
Black Michael and two cohorts had been let out of the brig just before the Sans Quartier arrived at Port Royale.
He managed to get himself and his friends assigned to the shore party of six men that had been ordered by the Captain to bring Countess Margaret to the slave market. A price had been agreed upon and the Sultan's factor was waiting to take delivery of the goods.
The Countess was brought up on deck, spitting like a wildcat and struggling. Black Michael wrapped his beefy hand around her upper arm and hissed quietly in her ear, "Just be quiet, woman! Once we're off the ship, me and me mates'll take care of our part of the plan. You do yours, aye? And don't forget our reward!"
The Countess looked at the pirate; her amethyst eyes glittered like chips of crystal. "Oh, yes," she purred softly, making sure no other man could hear her. She stopped fighting and seemed to give in; one of the other pirates made a lewd comment on Black Michael's prowess with the ladies, which made the others snicker.
As she was lowered over the side of the ship and into a small rowboat, Countess Margaret thought to herself, You'll get your reward, all right. She smiled, a soft secret smile that barely touched her lips and her eyes not at all.
You'll get exactly what you deserve.
When they lifted her out of the boat and herded her through the narrow, twisting alleys that led to the slave market, Margaret never stopped smiling.
Not even when, at a pre-arranged signal, Black
Michael and his men cut the throats of the other three pirates, spraying her
gown and the upper slopes of her breasts with dark crimson